The beginning of the 2013 NFL season is nearly upon us.
As fans patiently wait and count down the days to the September 5 season opener, players around the league will be sweating out the summer heat during a wonderful little event known as training camp.
Many fans have gotten a look at training camp practices on television and some have even been lucky enough to attend open portions of an NFL training camp in person. Most have at least some idea of what players go through as they grind through practices, film sessions, meetings and more in an effort to better themselves as players and strengthen their respective teams.
What many of us do not fully understand, however, is just who benefits the most from the hours, days and weeks of continuous hard work.
Not all positions are created equal and some individuals will undoubtedly have to put in more work—with bigger potential rewards awaiting at the finish line—than others.
Today we will take a brief look at each position group and try to get a feel for what the players among them go through and the benefits they can reap when all is said and done.
On the field for only a few plays each game, specialists have a much smaller playbook to digest than every-down players and therefore need to spend far less time pouring over film or repeatedly running plays.
Becoming a successful specialist does take work, practice and repetition. However, much of this could be just as easily accomplished away from the rest of the team.
A seasoned kicker or punter can virtually walk in off the street and perform in a game the same day, so long as they can get on the same page with the guys snapping and holding the football.
Conditioning is rarely an issue with specialists as we seldom see these players race down the field on a punt or kickoff to engage a blocker or find the ball-carrier.
Defensive linemen come in many forms. From lighter, pass-rushing defensive ends to athletic 4-3 defensive tackles and mammoth 3-4 nose guards, defensive linemen can vary greatly in both size and body type.
As some of the biggest players on the field at any given time, conditioning can play a vital role in a defensive lineman's ability to effectively stay in games. Strength, obviously, is also a major factor.
Therefore, the strength and conditioning portions of training camp can make or break a lineman's chances of making the team or earning a starting role. A player who disappears for large stretches on game day is of little use to an NFL head coach as an every-down player.
Defensive linemen also have to learn a variety of positioning assignments as well as the entire defensive playbook. On any given play, a defensive lineman will line up at a specific point across from the offensive line. They will typically line up directly across from the center, guard, tackle or tight end or in between them in lanes known as "gaps."
Knowing the right responsibility for each position, or "technique," is extremely important for defensive linemen, which adds a mental element to the preparation they undergo in training camp.
However, the responsibilities of defensive linemen on any given play basically consists of one of three things—rush the passer, locate and tackle the ball-carrier or occupy blockers so that players on the back end of the defense can make a play.
An accomplished defensive lineman can theoretically miss most or all of training camp and still perform effectively, provided he knows the playbook well enough to line up correctly on game day.
It is a commonly held belief that running backs have the easiest transition from collegiate play to the pros or from team to team in the NFL.
So it is easy to assume that running backs also have little to learn or gain from training camp, at least when compared to other positions.
This may be true to some degree, but not completely.
While there are only so many gaps through which a running back can run, carrying the football is only one of a complete back's responsibility.
In today's NFL, where an offense's propensity to pass the football has increased to record levels, backs are being asked to do more than ever before. Not only does a successful running back have to learn to run proper routes and catch the football out of the backfield, but he must also learn blocking assignments for passing plays in which the back is not a target.
This is especially true for fullbacks, who spend a greater percentage of their time engaging defenders than tailbacks.
In addition to digesting an ever-growing playbook, backs must also stay on top of their strength and conditioning in a very big way. An out-of-shape running back won't last long on an NFL roster and certainly won't exit training camp with a significant role.
Like the defensive linemen mentioned earlier, NFL defensive backs spend a great deal of training camp mastering various assignments in the defensive playbook.
However, instead of focusing on which gap to attack based on their position, defensive backs must learn coverage assignments based on the play call and on their position on the field.
There are essentially four positions in the defensive backfield—outside cornerback, nickel or slot corner, free safety and strong safety—though modern passing defenses often mesh duties between positions and call for players capable of performing multiple roles in any given situation.
Whether a defensive back is asked to cover a receiver one-on-one in man coverage, cover a particular area of the field in zone or creep toward the line for run support or to blitz, each assignment can change from play to play.
Knowing a player's assignment for each situation is of vital importance as a blown coverage can quickly lead to an easy score for the opposing offense.
Conditioning is also particularly important for defensive backs, as they spend the majority of their time on the field running with opposing receivers. They also must possess the strength to jam pass-catchers at the line, tackle downfield ball-carriers and contest passes in mid-air.
Equally important is a defensive back's ability to know to know his teammates' assignments and work as a cohesive unit in pass coverage, which means a player's time in training camp is invaluable.
As the team's primary pass-catchers, wide receivers have a very important job in today's NFL and, therefore, must spend a great deal of focus and effort during training camp.
A modern NFL receiver must be able to do more than simply run fast in a straight line, as passing plays and the receiving routes contained within have become increasingly complicated over the years.
A receiver must work tirelessly on his route running because being in the wrong place at the wrong time will usually lead to an incomplete pass or worse. For this reason, it is extremely important for receivers to put in time working with their quarterback so that a mutual understanding of timing can be obtained.
Getting on the same page with a quarterback is not a task that can be completed overnight and receivers must put in a great deal of work and repetition in camp to get there.
Strength and conditioning are extremely important for receivers for many of the same reasons they are important for defensive backs. A receiver who cannot break free of coverage, fight for a contested pass or block downfield on running plays has little value to an NFL team, so wideouts must remain in peak physical shape.
A receiver's ability to make a team or earn a job as a starting player depends almost exclusively on his ability to put everything together in training camp and earn the confidence of his coaches and quarterback.
A tight end's responsibilities in training camp are very similar to those of a wide receiver, with one notable exceptions. Tight ends are required to block much more often on both running and passing plays.
There was a time when the tight end essentially acted as an extra offensive lineman who was occasionally asked to go out for a pass, but that role has long become a thing of the past.
Modern NFL tight ends must act as a combination offensive lineman and receiver who can both hold his own along the line and challenge defenses downfield.
This means that a tight end's focus during training camp must be split between route-running, strength and conditioning and learning the various blocking assignments he will be asked to undertake on game day.
Blocking is an especially difficult skill to master without the aid of team practices. While a receiver can run sprints, work on routes and hit the weight room on his own, improving blocking skills can really only be accomplished when there is a live opponent staring back from the other side of the line of scrimmage.
A tight end must be able to combine all of these skills and while star tight ends are made on the game field, starting-caliber tight ends are forged in the heat of training camp.
Like other defenders on this list, linebackers must master their assignments, which can vary greatly depending on the defensive alignment and whether the linebacker is playing on the outside or the insides of the formation.
Linebackers are asked to perform many roles similar to those of a defensive lineman, especially when rushing the passer, which occurs mostly from the outside position. However, they must also be able to hold their own in pass coverage and pursue ball-carriers in the open field.
In addition to learning the playbook and gaining the proper conditioning to execute these assignments, linebackers—especially those positioned in the middle of the defense—are often asked to call plays in the huddle and ensure that each defender is properly aligned before the snap of the football.
Therefore, many linebackers must not only know their own individual assignments but must also familiarize themselves with the assignment of every other defender on the field.
This is why linebackers are among the most important players on the defensive side of the football and must work as hard as any other player during training camp in order to have a significant impact when the plays count.
The quarterback is the NFL's most important position so it is only natural that the signal-caller has a great deal to gain or lose during training camp.
The quarterback must know the offensive playbook inside and out and must be able to line each player up and dictate assignments pre-snap, call plays on the fly and change assignments in order to counter a particular defensive alignment.
For this reason, quarterbacks must have a working knowledge of defensive playbooks as well as his own and must familiarize himself with every single position on the field.
While conditioning is usually not as much of an issue for quarterbacks as it is for skill position players, a good quarterback must still put in the work on the track and in the weight room to stay in peak physical conditioning. This is especially true in the case of the increasingly popular read-option quarterback, who is asked to carry the football more than his traditional counterpart.
Timing is everything for a successful quarterback as he must get the timing with his receivers down to a science during training camp in order to find the open man and deliver a catchable ball on game day.
Make no mistake, there is a lot more going on for a quarterback during training camp than simple pass repetition and a good signal-caller will spend just as much time in the film room and in meetings as he does on the practice field.
Quarterbacks are typically the first player to arrive in the mornings and the last to leave late at night and virtually no other player stands to benefit from training camp as much as the team's field general.
If there is a player who stands to gain more from training camp than the quarterback, it is likely the offensive lineman.
Responsible for both protecting the quarterback and opening running lanes for the ball-carrier, the offensive lineman is one of the most important, though often overlooked, players in today's game.
We are talking about tall, big and physical men who must possess the strength to stonewall a rushing defender and have the foot quickness and field-vision to move along the line and ensure that an offensive play can be properly executed.
These men must be superbly conditioned in order to maintain an offense's tempo and must put in countless hours in the weight room to ensure they can move and block opposing players.
While training camp is important for all linemen—the center, inside guards and outside tackles—it is especially important for the blindside tackle (the left tackle for right-handed quarterbacks, vice versa for left-handed quarterbacks).
The blindside tackle is typically responsible for battling a team's best pass-rusher and failing to do so can result in sacks, turnovers or even injury to the quarterback. This is why elite tackles are highly-coveted around the league and can command salaries which rival those of the game's top skill positions.
While quarterbacks can watch film and throw footballs on his own, receivers can work on routes in solitude and running backs can run virtually anywhere, a lineman can only become a dominant blocker by working against a live opponent.
Whether falling back to protect a quarterback, pulling to the opposite side of the field to lead a runner or pointing out shifts in the defensive alignment, offensive linemen have a multitude of responsibilities, many of which can only be mastered in training camp.